Do you want to do Winterlicious?
I didn’t until the right experience came along
I was never a fan of Winterlicious. The two-week festival (and its cousin Summerlicious) were initially created as a way to attract diners during slower seasons. To entice new diners you need great food, a great atmosphere, and a reasonable price point.
I, however, found none of these things the last time I participated.
The food didn’t taste very fresh, the flavour was subpar and the dining experience was non-existent – that is until they wanted to rush us out the door, no doubt in favour of the next patron. By the time I got to the end of the $33 meal and added on the tip, I felt like I would have had a more palatable experience (both for my mouth and my wallet) at a restaurant I prefer to visit.
No phrase makes me shudder like a friend asking ‘do you want to do Winterlicious?’ It’s the same shudder I feel when I’m asked if I’d like to check out the buffet. Heck, even buffet eating is less terrifying because at least it isn’t pretending – it knows that sometimes, it compromises quality for quantity. At least with the lack of pretence, I can adjust my expectations accordingly and enjoy.
It’s harsh to judge the entirety of a dining program on one experience. But my poor experience is not uncommon (just google is Winterlicious worth it and you’ll see a dearth of complainers).
So while I’ve been practicing my Winterlicious / Summerlicious invite declines (“I’m working” is my usual favourite go-to excuse) a brand new Winterlicious experience has turned my perspective around.
Now this change of heart wasn’t because I was interested in Winterlicious and gave it another shot – rather, this change of heart came from a desire to eat at the fine dining restaurant Miku. And my chance finally came, serendipitously on the final day of Winterlicious. When I saw that this was a chance to sample what the restaurant had to offer at a rate slightly discounted to the norm, I knew I couldn’t pass up this chance. So while I was hesitant of Winterlicious, I excitedly booked my Winterlicious experience (and by book, I mean I booked it right out of work at five in order to make it to the restaurant before the crowds came since their reservations were completely full).
When I arrived, I was lucky to find that the restaurant had a communal dining area which they could offer to us as the rest of the restaurant was booked solid. It ultimately meant large tables were shared amongst smaller groups (mostly of pairs from what I could tell). And as I sat down to begin dinner completely unbothered by my neighbours beside me, I wondered why I had yet to encounter more restaurants with the communal or dining hall-style of seating.
I didn’t have long to wonder though, as we were greeted by a charismatic waiter (one I would later overhear telling our seat neighbours that he was an actor). He gave us a rundown of the Winterlicious menu and was thoughtful enough to offer recommendations (including the fact that this establishment was known for its aburi style sushi) – but we didn’t need it, we already had our eye on certain items.
As each dish arrived with a beautiful presentation, almost too pretty to eat (almost), our waiter gave us a quick explanation of the key components of each dish. It’s a flourish my boorishly middle-class upbringing is not quite used to, but I appreciated the detail.
I also appreciated the frequent check-ins and water refills. I guess this is what service is supposed to look like?
$150 later we had indulged in three excellent courses. Going as a couple meant we split ⅔ of the menu. The meal was on the pricier side of our typical restaurant outings but on the cheaper side of our more indulgent once a year, special occasion restaurant trips. It’s too bad our anniversary doesn’t fall within this time period…
I was surprised to find that I left Miku with a changed perspective on Winterlicious. It probably helped that we had a fantastic dining experience with fresh and delicious food. Nothing at all like my previous Winterlicious experience.
It finally dawned on me why despite the complaints, Winterlicious can be such a popular affair: Winterlicious is your budget entryway into fine dining.
For those of you who were like me – afraid that mass imposed programs meant a mass-produced and unsatisfying culinary approach – well those fears don’t matter at places of fine dining. If the restaurant has a strong reputation to hold up, chances are, it will treat each Winterlicious attendee like any other patron.
I think after this experience, the next time someone asks me ‘do you want to do Winterlicious’ instead of my typical shudder I might be interested in researching and finding my next new culinary adventure. As they say, don’t knock it ’till you try it.